Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker: Martin Scorsese

When cinema’s finest, Martin Scorsese, speaks, we listen. That’s MovieMaker‘s unofficial golden rule.

So when we had the opportunity to record the following, we leapt. The great director is thankfully forthcoming with his opinions, and insights from his legendary 50-plus-year career. Take it away, Marty.


1. One has to work within the reality. When you have something you’re burning to make, you have to consider the pros and cons of independent money. With a budget of $96 million or something, you have to be responsible for that money. So you have to try to combine what interests you with some elements of box office and some responsibility to the studio.

2. In a case like [Gangs of New York], when you want to make a picture that’s “sprawling,” and you want to give the impression on the big screen—on a wide, anamorphic screen—that the story and the people are just falling off the edges, that you can hardly contain them… That means you need a good budget.

3. The key thing is, the more money you get, the more responsible you are for it. I think that’s the main thing that’s changed from the ’70s.

4. If you’re still doing the same thing year after year, maybe that’s not such a good thing. On the one hand, it’s a good thing if you can make only one picture in your life. On the other, you can make the case that if your style doesn’t evolve you haven’t grown as a person.

5. Well, the thing about it is “auteur” really just means that I don’t “go to work.” I do what I want to do. That’s all it really is, I think. And if what you want to do has some appeal to the studios and some appeal to the popular audience, that’s pretty good.

6. In a case like Goodfellas or Casino, you pick people who understand that world. So if something happens, they can go with it. They intrinsically know their position in that world. They know that if they’re in a room with someone of higher status in their group and I want them to go with what happens in the improv, they don’t suddenly cross a line and lose who they’re supposed to be. Because they are that person, in a way. In other cases, like with Cape Fear or Age of Innocence, you simply have wonderful actors you can depend on.

7. My friend George Memmoli, who is now dead, was was supposed to play [Scorsese’s role in Taxi Driver]. You know him, he was the very heavy guy in Mean Streets. He was supposed to be the guy in the back seat, but he had suffered a terrible accident on a low-budget film and it eventually killed him. That’s why these kids shooting these low-budget movies have to watch out. They try to do tricks and stunts and don’t have the right people. They think nothing will happen because they’re young. Don’t do it!

8. But if ever there was a film, let’s say, that had a bar scene, and it took place in 1950, and it needed a certain kind of music, I might say here’s my chance to use this song I’ve always wanted to use… But is it right for the scene? That becomes a whole other thing, see—is it right for the scene? Now in some cases, some of the scenes are done and once the music is put into the film, as with Goodfellas and Casino, it’s exactly in the places I imagined those songs to be. Then there are holes in the picture. So I start to fill those gaps in a very simple way. I go to the period of time that that scene is taking place—1962 or ’63, let’s say. I’ll check all the popular music from ‘63 back to ‘55 and figure anything like that can be heard. Then I narrow it down to a few songs I like. And within that I make further choices, particularly based on the lyrics at that point. I don’t want the lyrics to hit too literally on the nature of the picture.

9. Cinema has a way of humbling you. I was just looking at a film by a British director, Thorold Dickinson. He did a movie called Queen of Spades, based on the Alexander Pushkin short story. He said when you get down to trimming a half-foot here and there from a film—when you trim milliseconds—that’s when you get to know the true nature of cinema. And it’s true. It’s frame-by-frame, perf-by-perf. And by the way, that’s some of the roughest cutting you’ll ever do, because there’s always a little more.

1o. As I say, you’ve gotta give yourself to it. In a case like that, where I become satisfied with the film is ultimately in what the film dictates. You don’t know that until you get into each picture. MM

As told to MovieMaker Magazine. Photograph by Brigitte Lacombe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.